Singularity of Great Britishness

I’ve written a bit recently about the technological singularity, the idea that paradigm shifts have been increasing in frequency logarithmically, so that soon there won’t be time to do anything except paradigm shift and that will be so tiring for us that all bets are off about what we will do or become next.

Anyway, the proof of this is all here in this lovely graphic on wikipedia, collecting data from many esteemed sources (click for the big version).

Someone once pointed out to me that people tend to overvalue recent changes, because they mean more to them, and they forget or undervalue older stuff. I’ll call this the Dewhurst effect.

So my question is, are these paradigm shift graphs simply artefacts of the Dewhurst effect?

It’s very difficult to tell, but I thought one thing we could do is to generate a similar graph for something we know to be true, and see if the Dewhurst effect has had a distorting influence on that.

Everyone knows that the British are getting better and better as time goes on. There is no question that we are heading towards a singularity of greatness, when eventually so many great Britons are being born every minute that the Oxford English dictionary has to redefine greatness. Since this is a given, is there any data that I can plot to see if the Dewhurst effect has distorted the evidence for this?

Fortunately, there is. The Great British Broadcasting Corporation a few years ago ran a survey to determine the greatest britons of all time. You can read the full list on Wikipedia. I had to clean up the data a little, removing those whose names could be associated with paradigm shifts and technological discoveries to remove the influence of the technological singularity. Eventually, I got a list of musicians, politicians and humanitarians.

Here’s the graph (click for the full image).

Great People

Result. Well, obviously we don’t have as many data points as all those different think tanks, (I chose 1987, because I figure it takes about 20 years for greatness to manifest, so we wouldn’t have data for the last 20 years) which means that the graph isn’t as nice, and they have data going back more than 10000 years, but there looks to be a definite straight line there to me. In fact, I think if you just consider the last 10000 years our line is actually straighter than theirs. The fact that we are producing great Britons exponentially faster as time goes on is supported by the graph, with no sign of distortion from the Dewhurst effect. Perhaps we could also use the graph predictively. According to my calculations, there was a great briton living about 600 years before Boudica, or in 560 BC, that history has forgotten. This date corresponds neatly to the start of the iron age in Britain, so I would hazard a guess that he was the one who kicked it all off.

Schnee Schni Schnappy

The title is a reference to the German song. This post is not about that. This is just a local copy of a comment I wrote on someone elses blog, discussing the Iraq war and the behaviour of soldiers.

In reply to a comment on apostrophers post about becoming monsters:

This whole ‘snapping’ thing doesn’t give me a lot of solace. Wife beaters claim that they ‘just snapped’, and we still judge them harshly. Whether or not someones snapping reduces the guilt on them depends on how we feel about their reasons for snapping. In the case of wife beaters, we don’t care that they commited the act in a fit of rage, when she didn’t bring him a beer, because we don’t think that’s a very good reason for ‘snapping’. If someone can ‘snap’ over something they shouldn’t ‘snap’ over, then most people think of them as just as guilty.

For most of us, having your friend killed next to you seems like a good reason to snap, but I think that it is very different when you’re in a war situation and your friend is standing there with a machine gun. In that situation, you should expect him to be killed, and if you can’t handle that without committing atrocities than you really really really should not be in the army.

When you work with wife beaters and get them to analyse their thought processes, you discover that ‘snapping’ is not so thoughtless a process as they and it appears you believe. Even in a fit of rage, people plan and have the ability to reason [it is a suspension of morality, not rationality]. ‘Snapping’ is a choice, and you can be trained to make it a less appealing choice (one way is through harsh punishments, other ways include self-talk, etc). This is something that should be one of the main concerns in training anyone who is going to be given a gun.

As an aside to an earlier point, historically speaking, battles in the past weren’t always brute attempts at domination. There were rules to war even before the Geneva convention, to the extent that when Henry gave the order to kill the prisoners at Agincourt because they didn’t have enough men to keep them all under control (they were outnumbered 6 to 1) his orders were ignored. There have always been people who broke the rules of war, and in the past there was little that could be done, except not to invite them to parties, but there has been the notion of morality in the way you treat prisoners and enemy noncombatants for a long time.

Posted by: kyb at May 23, 2006 07:54 AM